Finding a balance between experimenting for the future and taking the next step forward

Finding a balance between experimenting for the future and taking the next step forward
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The young Spurs are struggling badly right now, so when is the right time to try something new?

Heading into the 2023-24 season, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich made three things very clear: the goal was to return to winning (i.e. not “tanking”, although that never meant this team would turn into a winner overnight), the main focus would be improving on defense, and Victor Wembanyama would be allowed to freelance for a while so the team could learn who he is before they begin truly “coaching” him.

We are now 11 games in, with the Spurs sitting at 3-8 and spiraling downhill on a 6-game losing streak, all while becoming only the second team to ever to lose three games by 30-plus so quickly, joining the 1990-91 Denver Nuggets, who finished that season with a 20-62 record (hat tip to J.R. Wilco for informing me of that little nugget — no pun intended).

Outside of an overtime win at home against the rising Houston Rockets and two wins in Phoenix that by the day are looking more miraculous than indicative of who this team really is, the Spurs have struggled badly, losing in every form imaginable, from wire-to-wire blowouts, slow starts and blowing (multiple) double-digit leads. The team has shown fight, but they just can’t get out of their own way and over the hump. None of the “experimentation” seems to be working so far, and fans are starting to lose patience, so it begs the question: when is it time to start changing things up?

Let’s start with the most obvious issue: point guard. The Spurs made the decision to only have one true PG in Tre Jones on the team and chose to bring him off the bench while grooming second-year forward Jeremy Sochan to lead the offense. There are arguments to be made in favor of this move — in theory it creates a tall starting lineup that should be strong defensively, and it will allow Sochan, who already has a high ceiling, to develop his game even further — but here’s the thing: it isn’t working so far. Like, at all.

This shouldn’t be a knock on Sochan, who is trying his best to learn while being put under immense pressure to perform on both ends of the floor, but he’s still unfairly bearing the brunt of fans’ wrath, and with Jones missing a couple of games with a sore hamstring, the issue of depth at the position has only been exasperated. It also doesn’t help that of all the Spurs’ two-man player combinations that have played regular minutes together, Jones is one of half of each of the team’s top five parings in terms of net rating (the team’s point differential per 100 possessions), including +19.3 with Wembanyama in 136 minutes. Meanwhile, Sochan and Wemby are way down the list with a -24.5 net rating in 200 minutes together.

Of course, none of this is to say those two should never share the court again, but maybe the starting lineup needs a shakeup. The regular starting lineup of those two plus Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson and Zach Collins currently has a net rating of -13.8 in 76 minutes together, but swap Sochan for Jones in an admittedly very small sample size of 16 minutes, and the net rating jumps to +29. Or, if we really want to go overboard with small sample sizes, replace Collins with Jones, which moves Wemby to center, and they’re a whopping +57 in 11 minutes together. The bottom line is while many sample sizes are still too small to say what does work, the ones that are big enough to start getting past sample size and into trend territory are clearly not working.

Speaking of Wemby, let’s refer back to Pop’s point that he’s going to just let him play for a while before starting to coach him up (which he has reiterated as recently as this week). To be clear, this doesn’t mean they’re completely ignoring him or aren’t doing fundamental work with him, just that they are letting him do his thing on the court and aren’t making him play within a system (for now). After a strong first five games, it has been a struggle for the rookie during much of the extended losing streak.

As predicted, he’s getting pushed around a bit by the stronger players in the league, his outside shooting is iffy, and consistency and decision making are a work in progress. On the other hand, he has still proven to be a strong finisher down low, and he tends to have better games when he gets himself established in the paint early. While in theory being paired with a three-point shooting center like Collins should not cause spacing issues and allow Wemby to operate down low, we’re still seeing a lot of the opposite, with Collins establishing himself in the paint while Wemby floats out on the wings and shoots jumpers.

It’s probably safe to say if Pop hasn’t started “coaching” Wemby in the definition we described yet, it might be time to start, because it’s becoming clear he needs some structure and direction. Not to mention, it’s not like he’s being inserted into a group of veterans who already know what to do for him, as was the case for Tim Duncan. Instead, the players around him are still young and learning themselves just as much as he is. Never mind if Wemby needs a “system” around him to thrive; his teammates need the guidance to help him thrive.

Experimentation is all about trying new things, and it almost never works on the first try (otherwise it wouldn’t be an experiment). No one can fault Pop and the Spurs for trying new things at a time when they can (and should), but another part of experimenting is changing things up when the first attempt fails.

Whatever that change is is anyone’s guess — most would agree it’s moving Jones to the starting lineup, but I would stray from the masses and say in place of Collins, not Sochan — but if the Spurs keep sticking to the status quo without seeing new results soon, conspiracy theories will start flying. (Some might even say, a certain something that rhymes with “prank” is on, and after a whole year of that AND getting exactly what they wanted out of it in return, no one wants to see it anymore.)

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